Observing the classroom

Gopal Midha

If you have been teaching for many years, at some time or another, you may have had an observer in your room. Usually sitting at the back of the classroom, she would be looking closely at what you write on the black/smart board, taking note of what you say and how the students respond to you. Often, this observer will also be jotting down notes in her notebook and every time you see her, a part of you will feel more cautious and you will be momentarily distracted. And if she is the principal or someone who has come to inspect your class, then this caution could easily turn into a struggle to become the perfect teaching machine. On the other hand, if you have been an observer, you might have felt the difficulty in capturing the deluge of data that you must interpret as you watch the teacher and the students interacting, something like standing in the middle of a river trying to judge how it flows. You might have even felt the urge to help out a struggling student or correct the teacher when she seems to be on the wrong track. And then there is always the difficulty of giving not-so-positive feedback later.

So, then why do we need to observe classrooms and teachers in action? Educators point out the following key benefits: (1) Classroom observations provide a structured way of assessing what is being taught and how (2) They help provide useful feedback to teachers which could help them improve their teaching and (3) They are a monitoring tool to ensure quality in teaching and learning.

Although these benefits are great, the way classrooms might be observed in your school requires close inquiry. As a teacher or a principal, it might be useful for you to find out whether the good intentions of supporting teaching-learning end up harming the process instead. Let us enter Tara’s classroom.

The case of Tara’s class
Tara teaches math to grade 5 students in a private school in Mumbai. She wants her students to enjoy math and her students learn well doing group-work and she often gives them hands-on activities. One day, she begins the class on fractions by dividing students into groups of five based on their roll numbers (1-5, 6-10…). There are 32 students, so she allots the extra two randomly to two groups. She then gives each group a sheet of chart paper to draw some rectangles and colour a few of them. Each group would then look at the other group’s work and answer what fraction of rectangles has been coloured. Owaiz, the principal walks into her class. He notices that the students in each group have sub-divided their roles (some are drawing the rectangles, others are colouring it). When the noise level in the room goes up, he sees how Tara addresses the loudest group and asks them to be quiet. He notices that each group has drawn rectangles of different sizes and at times, the rectangles drawn by the same group differ by 5-10 mm on their sides making them unequal, hence defeating the essence of having a standard unit for calculating fractions. He points this out to one of the groups, but the students look at him, smile, and continue their colouring. He walks around the room filling up the observation sheet based on different parameters. Then he mentions the precision in the rectangles issue to Tara who agrees and mentions how difficult it is for her to monitor each group. He leaves the classroom, his head shaking with disappointment. Tara doesn’t feel that the observation went well. Her efforts at encouraging group-work were not even acknowledged. She decides to return to lecture mode in her next class so that she can ensure standardization.

Tara’s case is a class observation gone wrong. Why?
Classroom observations provide a structured method to analyze teaching-learning and the type of structure makes a difference. Classroom observations are structured through the observation sheet. The question is: How relevant is this observation sheet to what needs to be assessed? In our example, does the observation sheet capture the evidence for elements which research says are critical for understanding problem solving in math like:
• the knowledge base of the learner
• problem solving strategies he/she uses
• meta cognition, especially monitoring and self-regulation
• belief systems, and the practices that gave rise to them

Trying to assess a math class and a language class using the same observation sheet is like assessing a neurosurgeon and a gynaecologist using the same criteria (eg. politeness in talking to a patient, taking the patient’s medical history into account and so on).Relevant, but not core to the activity.


Further, most observation sheets are divided into separate sections, covering areas such as strategies of classroom management, types of learner interaction, usage of instructional material and the methods of assessment used. The issue with such structuring is that it assumes that these sections exist independently. However, the chart group-work used by Tara has links with instructional material, classroom management, and assessment. Also, the moment-by-moment shift in classroom interaction makes the rating of a parameter difficult. Although Tara was largely able to have a quiet classroom, at times she had to shout. How would Owaiz rate it? If the number of elements to be rated is more than 50, it is exhausting for the observer to keep track and often observers fall into rapid interpretations without describing the events behind them.

These interpretations are strongly influenced by who Owaiz is and what his intentions are. His own teaching experience, his social background, administrative pressures of his role as the principal, recent conversations with parents and even how his day has turned out so far – are going to shape his comments on the observation sheet. Objectivity in classroom observations is a myth.

Finally, the presence of the observer can impact the classroom. In our case, when Owaiz walks into the classroom, some students take notice of him. Tara is also likely to change her teaching with the principal in the classroom depending on her equation with him. For example, if she has heard Owaiz talk highly of students working in groups, she might do more of group-work when Owaiz walks into the class.

Besides these operational issues, the very notion of classroom observations is based on an erroneous assumption that 15-20 minutes in a classroom is enough to judge teaching-learning. Unless the observer understands the student profile, has experienced the previous classroom sessions and discussed the lesson plan with the teacher, it is unlikely that he would get closer to a true picture of what really is happening. However, this requires huge investment of time on the part of the observer and that may rarely happen. The underlying assumption is that the classroom is like a factory with knowledge being produced by the teacher and absorbed by the students – which in turn can be easily and quickly measured.

So, is there any sense in undertaking classroom observations?
Of course! Teachers who want to improve will value feedback coming from a space of respect and knowledge. This requires that the classroom observation is:

Equitable: the teacher is involved throughout the process. The classroom observation sheet is prepared with her help. It is possible to even include a few students to gauge their thoughts.

Focused: Instead of trying to rate everything, the teacher could ask the observer to focus on two factors, say student-engagement and appropriateness of the teaching material, for a particular session. Next observation could focus on inclusive teaching and classroom management.

Mastery-oriented: The observer must be worthy of observing. She needs to be an expert at content and pedagogy. Her comments need to come from a combined sense of experience and research.

Qualitative: Besides the ratings on the sheet, the observer could write rich descriptions which describe in detail what was happening. This method brings out the salient features (e.g., size of the classroom, lighting, outside noise, silences, etc.), which are often missed in standard classroom sheets.

Hopefully, these thoughts will spur a discussion in your school on the whys and hows of classroom observations and make them more effective. If we are planning to spend the already scarce time which our teachers and principals have towards an activity, let’s make it count.

The author is a PhD scholar at University of Virginia. He has previously taught math and English to grade 5 and 6 and also taught Education Leadership to MA students at TISS, Mumbai. Besides teaching, he loves photography, film-making and story-telling. He may be reached at gopalmidha@gmail.com.

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